GAME 6 PREVIEW

mailbag@thunder-nba.com
May 30th 2014
Regaining Defensive Toughness

There’s a to-do list for the Thunder each game. Against any team, but particularly a sharp, veteran squad like the San Antonio Spurs, it’s a long list and every item must be checked off.

On Friday as Head Coach Scott Brooks’ team gathered at the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Development Center for a 90-minute film session, the list for Saturday’s Game 6 was formulated. In order to tie up the series and dig itself out of a 3-2 hole to force a Game 7, the Thunder must take care of business on the defensive end at Chesapeake Energy Arena for a full 48 minutes. The mentality must be right but it all comes down to the physical execution on the defensive end, which Brooks laid out.

“We have to play with better focus,” Brooks said. “We have to dictate the game defensively. We have to make them feel uncomfortable. We have to chase them off the line.”

“We have to come in with the mindset that we’re going to dictate the game defensively with our activity and use what we have advantages in certain areas, which is athleticism and being able to disrupt the flow of their offense,” Brooks explained.

San Antonio seemed to be in the lane and kicking out to shooters too many times in the Thunder’s 117-89 loss to the Spurs in Game 5 on Thursday, so that is a major area of focus in Game 6. Point guards like Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher must be aggressive and forceful at the point of attack in defending Spurs guards like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills. If the Thunder can force the Spurs into uncomfortable spots on the floor, it will give itself the best chance of forcing San Antonio into turnovers or difficult, contested two-point jumpers late in the shot clock.

“Effort and physicality,” Jackson said. “That’s about it. We know our backs are against the wall playing at home in front of our crowd. We’re blessed to play another game. We have to take care of business.”

“That starts with a mindset and with the right mental approach to the game,” Fisher said. “Defense for sure is at the top of the list. It’s something we’ve talked about all year and we have to have it tomorrow.”

While the defense all starts on the ball with Thunder bigs and guards working together to disrupt opponents’ timing and flow, there are even smaller details of the five-man defense that are integral to success. Aspects of the game like positioning of wing players like Kevin Durant, Caron Butler and Jeremy Lamb can make the difference between a strong closeout and being a second too late, allowing an open three-pointer. In order to be an effective defensive unit on Saturday, the Thunder will have to communicate, trust one another and make the collective effort to stay in front of the ball while also preventing easy looks at the rim.

“It’s just being the right spots on defense and helping each other out a little bit more than we did last game,” Durant said. “It’s taking pride in individual defense.”

All that defensive talk done by the Thunder on Friday has implications on the offensive end as well. The lifeblood of the Thunder’s offense has always been in its ability to get stops and run in transition. With its athleticism, strength, speed and unselfishness, the Thunder can be a terror in the open court or when its opponent doesn’t have time to set up in its half court defensive shell.

In order to come away victorious on Saturday to extend the series and give itself a chance to advance to the NBA Finals, the Thunder must be able to find ways between games and during games to ensure that it is playing its brand of basketball for as long as possible. That means that each minute of the game, each timeout and each quarter break must be used productively to adjust and create new opportunities, while creating challenges for the Spurs.

“The teams that are able to best make adjustments from quarter to quarter, half to half and game to game are the ones generally able to find success,” Fisher said.